Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Getting the Signals Crossed

Now we know why the Obama administration asked President Bush to go ahead and request the remaining $350 billion of TARP funds: Bank of America needs another bailout. No details are available yet, but everyone's assuming that the BofA deal will be roughly similar to the deal Treasury struck with Citi in November. The Treasury has already committed the first $350 billion of TARP funds, so it's essentially committing money that it doesn't have yet. They'll get the money eventually, of course, though with tighter restrictions on its use. This episode just goes to show that Treasury and Fed officials have to be really careful about what they say and do in public. Ever since the Lehman/AIG failures, there have been Treasury and Fed officials at every major bank, constantly monitoring their books. Everyone in the market knows this. So when the Obama administration asked President Bush to go ahead and request the second half of the TARP funds, rather than waiting until Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20, the market was seriously spooked. Everyone interpreted the move to mean that one of the major banks was in trouble again, and will need another bailout to survive. Since everyone knows that Treasury and Fed officials are constantly monitoring the major banks' books, the move to request the second half of the TARP funds sent a signal to the market that something is wrong at one of the major banks, and the problem is urgent (otherwise why not wait until after the inauguration to request the funds?). As soon as Obama had Bush request the funds, the race was on to figure out which bank was in trouble. At first everyone thought it was Citi, since it had just announced plans to raise capital by breaking itself up, including spinning off Smith Barney in exchange for $3bn from Morgan Stanley. To give you a sense of the fear that gripped the market after the Obama administration's ominous move, CDS spreads on Citi jumped an unheard of 100bps today (spreads don't usually move more than 5-10bps in a single day). Deutsche Bank's announcement this morning that it had lost $6.3 billion in Q4 just added fuel to the fire. Now we know that the bank that's in trouble is BofA, not Citi. It's now clear that the BofA Bailout 2.0 is the reason Obama had Bush request the rest of the TARP funds, but that just confirms that the market was right to interpret Obama's move as a signal that one of the major banks was in trouble. The moral of the story is that Obama, Geithner, Bernanke, Summers et al. need to realize that since Treasury and Fed officials are constantly monitoring the major banks' books, their statements and actions could, if they're not careful, send the wrong signal about the health of U.S. banks.

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